Featured Post: Coming out in the LDS Church


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Courtier's Reply

PZ Meyers
The Courtier's Reply is a sort of antithesis to the Argument from Authority. The main point of the Courtier's Reply is that a person does not have to be an authority on a topic to make a valid point.

This concept is very old, allegedly going back to Sir Isaac Newton, who supposedly said to a skeptical Edmund Halley regarding astrology - "I, sir, have studied it; you have not." It was popularized under its current name by biologist/blogger PZ Meyers.

Meyers says:
I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk. Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

In other words, Richard Dawkins is like the boy at the end of the story who points out that the emperor is naked, but the courtier replies that hes not naked. The boy is simply uneducated in "Imaginary Fabrics."

This post by Meyers was later reposted on Richarddawkins.net where Dawkins was the first to comment:
 Congratulations to P Z Myers on this brilliant piece of satire. It applies not just to Allen Orr's review in NYRB, but to all those many reviews of TGD that complain of my lack of reading in theology. My own stock reply ("How many learned books of fairyology and hobgoblinology have you read?") is far less witty.
On another occasion, Dawkins commented on his lack of scholarship, saying,
 "Most of us happily disavow fairies, astrology, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster without first immersing ourselves in books of Pastafarian theology."
Ironically, I'm actually grateful for Meyer's argument. It allows sites like this to exist. However, even though I  agree with the principle, I also think that whenever one presents an argument on any topic, that argument has to be based on an accurate understanding of that subject.

For example, I could not say that Richard Dawkins is not a human because he has a tail and no human has a tail...

By the way, I'm counting this as a tail...

...because that argument is not based on an accurate understanding of the human anatomy, what a tail is as opposed to a coccyx, or even what a human is. A doctor or biologist who hears this argument may be inclined to ask, in exasperation, whether I've ever read Grey's Anatomy, Aristotle's Biology, or even a more rudimentary book on human anatomy. For crying out loud, even Eyewitness Books will do. Would I be able to cite the Courtier's Reply and go on asserting that Richard Dawkins is not a human? No. It's an ignorant argument.

An example of this sort of thing in Dawkins works occurs in the central argument of The God Delusion, in which he implies that Christianity should not be accepted because Evolution is a much more "ingenious" explanation of life. However, evolution does not conflict with Christianity or anything in the Bible. It may be the opinion of many Christians that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, etc, but this is not a part of the dogma.

As Charles Darwin said, a man "can be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist."

Dawkins argument seems to based on the understanding that Young-Earth Creationism is an inherent part of Christianity, but it is not. This, among other things, causes the argument to fall apart.

In addition, just as I am not free to interpret a coccyx as a tail, Dawkins is not free to interpret Christianity in any way he likes, either. His understanding of a topic must be in accord with the current, accepted, mainstream interpretation. The understanding of those he hopes to convince that his argument is valid. This does not require that he read a bunch of esoteric texts on deep, mystical spiritualism, but he must work with the mainstream interpretation, not his own, or else he is just calling a coccyx a tail, and he is simply wrong.

For example, Dawkins would ask us, "How many learned books of fairyology and hobgoblinology have you read?" I would say that I have never read any. Nevertheless, I do have a correct understanding of what is meant by "Fairy" and a correct understanding of why it is impossible. In addition, my understanding of a "Fairy" is in accordance with that of those I would like to convince, presumably the general public. I would not write a book saying "Fairies are hover-cars and hover-cars do not exist for these reasons, therefore fairies do not exist," because even if fairies are fictional, that's not how they are portrayed, so it's a faulty argument.

Another example of why this is important is in the writings of Plato, in which Socrates goes around questioning individuals who paint themselves as experts in various fields and showing them to be false. He does this by asking questions, then using the answers given to him by the experts as the basis for further interrogation until an inconsistency is revealed. He worked with the understanding of the individual he hoped to convince.

Dawkins, however, asks questions, but does not allow us to answer. He provides his own answers, then points out the inconsistencies.

In other words, while it is true that he does not have to personally go out and read some ancient texts on various religions throughout history, it is still required that his arguments be based on an accurate understanding of what is meant by "God," or whatever the topic may be, and that understanding must be the one held by whoever it is he hopes to convince that his argument is valid.

This is not the case when dealing with empirical evidence, such as the effect of religion on society, etc. These observations fall within the domain of science and necessarily require interpretation as part of the scientific method, but take the following quote,
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
He is not working with anything empirical here. No data, just his interpretation, but this interpretation holds no weight with well-read believers, because they simply assert that his interpretation is false because there were reasons for Old Testament events which Dawkins is not taking into account. They would not be able to do that if Dawkins had attempted to show the inconsistencies of a God who was infinitely loving, rather than a bully.


Post a Comment

Is there something here you like (or dislike)? Let me know! Your opinion matters!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...